Timothy Bate

Aboriginal Legal Services
Summer 2017

My summer placement at NAAJA in 2016 was my second Aurora internship of the year, via the Aurora Internship Program. Having previously undertaken a winter placement in Sydney, I hoped to not only further my understanding of the legal sector as it affects Indigenous Australians, but particularly to experience legal issues from another perspective. Accordingly, I was placed into the civil team at NAAJA and flew from Melbourne with a strong anticipation of experiencing life in Darwin and the legal system in the Northern Territory.

Indeed, the immediate heat and humidity from exiting the airport cemented this sense of difference I had hoped for. Arriving at work on Monday morning and I was treated to quite a novel first morning. The CICAYDAS program, providing free legal advice in conjunction with the Royal Commission, was being officially opened, with NAAJA the key body involved. The opportunity to hear from Nigel Scullion about the program and experience a welcome to country and smoking ceremony from the traditional land owners was a humbling way to begin my time at NAAJA.

My immediate impression of the civil section (or NAAJA more generally) was that it was busy. Perhaps with the Royal Commission soon to commence it was just one of those times with a multitude of things passing through the doors and everyone trying to wind things up before the Christmas break. My initial work involved administrative tasks such as closing files and drafting complaints, as well as general legal research for various matters any of the lawyers needed assistance with. I was fortunate to attend a Conciliation hearing with my mentor which was extremely interesting, both in terms of the way in which Racial Discrimination hearings can be settled and the deeper issues at tension within the Northern Territory Community. Over the course of the next few weeks my workload became more varied and I was able to jump between several tasks on different matters ranging from consumer claims to child protection matters and (which I soon realised consumed much of the civil section’s files) tort claims against Government agencies. I was pleased to be exposed to a range of areas of civil law, many of which I had little knowledge in. Even those files that required simple legal work on my behalf were intriguing by virtue of the nature of the problems at hand. One matter which was particularly interesting in the final two weeks at NAAJA was working through one clients’ criminal files for the purposes of preparing a submission for the Royal Commission. While I was not able to complete the task before I left, going through the files highlighted quite vividly the extent of criminal (and civil) activity in the Indigenous Youth and the systematic problems of Government Departments in dealing with this. Through attending prison and sitting in meetings with clients, I begun to appreciate the skill in communicating clearly with NAAJA’s Indigenous clients. This attentiveness to the particular circumstances and understanding of Indigenous clients was completely new to me and I made every effort to transform my thinking and communication in the same way.

NAAJA made every effort to include the interns in a range of professional development programs and workshops during my time there. This gave me an understanding of how to practically approach different legal issues, including police torts, victims of crime compensation and child protection. In addition, NAAJA ran a cultural awareness training which was critical in gaining an appreciation of the richness of Indigenous culture and how this translates into the current issues at stake today. Moreover, everyone at NAAJA was extremely accommodating, easy-going and made every effort to include the interns in their work and social activities. The sense of inclusiveness among the civil team made my time at NAAJA feel valued and I loved walking into work each day. In particular, everyone was willing to have a laugh and engage with others. It seems that the perfect workplace balance was struck and it was noticeable how positive the attitude was from all the people I met there.

Finally, Darwin was a great change of pace from Melbourne and I basked in the difference in culture, people and weather. I was fortunate enough to be sharing a house with two friends from Melbourne for the most part (working at different organisations), which filled my time with several activities both within Darwin and outside to the various National Parks. While the heat is intense and all absorbing, I actually soaked up the change in climate and embraced the sweat. Ultimately, I loved my time at NAAJA. From a personal perspective it was a great change from the fast-paced nature of Melbourne, but more importantly from a professional/learning perspective I truly gained a valuable insight into the civil team at NAAJA, the work they do and the underlying problems in the Northern Territory which make interning at places like NAAJA vital assistance in the Indigenous legal sector.